John Tierney, a versatile writer who often brings a refreshing libertarian tinge to his columns, can now be found every Tuesday on the Science Times page. Today's fitting entry, "Obama and  McCain Walk Into a Bar.... ," posed the question: Who has the better sense of humor, liberals or conservatives?
He analyzed a Boston study that presented liberals and conservatives with various jokes, good and bad, from Borscht Belt standbys to Jack Handy surrealism, and came to the surprising (to the researchers, anyway) conclusion that conservatives have a better sense of humor than liberals.
Tierney pondered the surprised reaction from researchers and others in the field, and wondered if they don't have unacknowledged political biases of their own.
The researchers picked out a variety of jokes - good, bad, conventional, absurdist - to look for differences in reactions between self-described liberals and conservatives.
They expected conservatives to like traditional jokes, like the one about the golfing widower, that reinforce racial and gender stereotypes. And because liberals had previously been reported to be more flexible and open to new ideas, the researchers expected them to get a bigger laugh out of unconventional humor, like Jack Handey's "Deep Thoughts" about the reindeer effect and Hambone.
Indeed, the conservatives did rate the traditional golf and marriage jokes as significantly funnier than the liberals did. But they also gave higher ratings to the absurdist "Deep Thoughts." In
"I was surprised," said Dan Ariely, a psychologist at Duke University, who collaborated on the study with Elisabeth Malin, a student at Mount Holyoke College. "Conservatives are supposed to be more rigid and less sophisticated, but they liked even the more complex humor."
But don't worry, there's an explanation from experts in the field: Selfless liberals are just so weighed down with the inequality of the world they just can't raise a smile.
But then why didn't the liberals in the Boston experiment like the nonsense humor of "Deep Thoughts" as much as the conservatives did? One possible explanation is that conservatives' rigidity mattered less than another aspect of their personality. Rod Martin, the author of "The Psychology of Humor," said the results of the Boston study might reflect another trait that has been shown to correlate with a taste for jokes: cheerfulness.
"Conservatives tend to be happier than liberals in general," said Dr. Martin, a psychologist at the University of Western Ontario. "A conservative outlook rationalizes social inequality, accepting the world as it is, and making it less of a threat to one's well-being, whereas a liberal outlook leads to dissatisfaction with the world as it is, and a sense that things need to change before one can be really happy."
Tierney punctured that pomposity:
Another possible explanation is that conservatives, or at least the ones in Boston, really aren't the stiffs they're made out to be by social scientists. When these scientists analyze conservatives, they can sound like Victorians describing headhunters in Borneo. They try to be objective, but it's an alien culture....Could it be that the image of conservatives as humorless, dogmatic neurotics is based more on political bias than sound social science? ....So perhaps conservatives don't have a monopoly on humorless dogmatism. Maybe the stereotype of the dour, rigid conservative has more to do with social scientists' groupthink and wariness of outsiders....